A brilliant slice of Polar history. Written by Dr Robert Bunes, the ships doctor on board of the icebreaker Glacier in the early 70s, he takes the reader on a journey into the icy waters of Antarctica. There his ship, ‘the largest, toughest and most powerful icebreaker in the free world, is besieged in the ice pack of the Weddell sea. Ironically this modern wonder of power is stuck exactly in the same location where Shacklton’s Endurance was crushed. Bunes does a fine job documenting the past history of ships that entered Antarctic’s ice pack and what happen in these socially isolated conditions where leadership is stretched to its very limits and often snaps. --Will Steger, world famous Polar explorer
A tour of duty on an icebreaker bound for Antarctica, after stopping at a number of exotic ports, sounds like an easy travel adventure to the young doctor, Bob Bunes. He reports for duty with a paisley surfboard, a set of skis, and high hopes, only to find a ship with no medical supplies and inadequate equipment, eventually headed for the Weddell Sea, and what Sir Earnest Shackleton called “the worst part of the worst ocean on earth.”
The weight of having ultimate medical responsibility for a 200-man crew in the most remote part of the world hits the doctor like a tsunami wave. Nothing in his training prepares him for a host of medical emergencies he later faces, like preforming surgery on a violently tossing ship or resuscitating a sailor in the middle of a massive shipboard fire.
A collision with an immovable ice mountain tears a gash in the side of the ship and makes the vessel all the more vulnerable when it is later confronted with hurricane-force winds that flatten the vessel or wind-driven ice that imprisons the ship and threatens to crush it.
The ship-captain’s obsession with retrieving a set of oceanographic buoys and his last-ditch efforts at becoming an admiral leads to perilous lapses in his judgement. As the danger mounts, the doctor and the captain move ever closer to open conflict over the welfare of the crew.
This riveting true-life tale of crisis and adventure grips the reader from the first page to the last. The extreme conditions of the Antarctic are vividly drawn, as is the fragility and tenacity of human life in the face of unimaginably stark circumstances. A must-read!
---Ellen Keigh, author of Streets of Silver—
NetGalley Review: 5 stars
Last updated on 25 Sep 2021
"Dr. Robert M. Bunes volunteered to serve on an ice breaker (called the Glacier) headed to Antarctica in the U.S. Coast Guard at the height of the Vietnam War. Bunes explains he didn’t agree with the war, but he also wanted to serve his country. The Public Health Service offered a way to serve without having to serve directly in Vietnam.
He joins the Coast Guard as a way to avoid fighting in Vietnam without acting with cowardice, but he soon discovers so many great things accompanying Coast Guard service—a sense of pride in serving a branch that has rescued more than one million people (according to Coast Guard historians), fellow service members who share his mission to save lives, even some whom become personal friends, and better pay than being a medical intern. Readers quickly learn it takes a brave individual to serve on an ice breaker headed to Antarctica.
This is a memoir—most readers will already know this—so, if you are expecting a clinical approach, your expectations might be dashed. However, I really enjoyed the conversational style of the writing. I really felt like I was there with Bunes, his boss Captain Brennan, and the uptight chief who loves crew cuts and hates Bunes’ mustache. Bunes includes photos and maps as visual aids (it’s really helpful when he is describing the specifics of Antarctica).
I really enjoyed how Bunes uses Ernest Shackleton as a comparison to his predicament. Of course, Shackleton and his crew were heroes for their explorations and brave survival in frigid conditions in Antarctica, but, while Bunes and his crew aren’t afforded the same reverence and don’t experience the same conditions, they do have to demonstrate similar traits, particularly perseverance as they face multiple obstacles. Overall, a great read. Thanks to the author, Rowman & Littlefield and NetGalley for the ARC."—Erich Hilkert, reviewer—
“The author’s remembrance is brimming with insights as well as captivating photographs… full of riveting details.”
— Kirkus Reviews—
"On the surface Robert M. Bunes new book Wind, Fire and Ice: The Perils of a Coast Guard Icebreaker in Antarctica is an autobiographical take on a young physician’s deployment on USCGC Glacier to Antarctica in the early 1970s. As such it is a welcome addition to the body of literature on the maritime history of the Antarctic region in particular as it covers a period seldom covered by polar or maritime historians who still tend to focus mainly on the so-called heroic age of Antarctic exploration. But reading deeper into the book, it becomes obvious that there is much more to the book and that it needs to be recommended not only to the small group of maritime and polar historians interested in the history of navigating the frozen waters adjacent to the seventh continent, but also to everybody interested in maritime leadership, the debate if and why the US needs to maintain a fleet of heavy ice-breakers capable to operate in Antarctic waters, and even Antarctic expedition cruise tourism as it tells a cautious tale on how standard operations have the potential to turn into disaster and to substantially affect other Antarctic operations.
When Bunes was deployed to become the head physician on USCGC Glacier it seemed to be an easy deployment, but as the reader realizes only a few pages into the book, this was by no means the case. Instead of going to port in exotic locations, USCGC Glacier set sail towards the Weddell Sea and thus towards an area where Ernest Shackleton and his men needed to endure one of the most tragic and most lucky Antarctic journeys of all time after their ship Endurancewas crushed by the ice of the Weddell-Sea, but also an area where Antarctica shows utmost beauty to everybody respectful enough to enjoy this beauty while knowing and respecting at the same time the inherent dangers and taking these dangers into account for all decisions.
As an autobiographical recollection Bunes’ book mainly follows a chronology of the journey and thus he takes his reader through the events during his cruise but also to observe the issues encountered during the cruise or at least Bunes’ personal perspective on these issues. Covering topics like accidents aboard and the issue of venereal diseases ashore Bunes provides a realistic inside into the responsibilities of a physician onboard a vessel during international deployment before moving forward towards Antarctica. In the chapters devoted to the Antarctic operations of the USCGC Glacier, Bunes provides an interesting insight on Antarctic operations during the heydays of the Cold War, including the direct cooperation with Soviet Antarctic scientists, which was standard practice despite the Cold War. All this would be easily enough to recommend Bunes’ book, but the really interesting part of the book begins when he describes, how the Glacier became trapped in the ice of the Weddell-Sea due to a decision by her commanding officer which was by the point of view of the author somewhat questionable. While the ship was finally freed from the ice by nature itself, further decisions by the commanding officer followed that Bunes did not only consider also as questionable or wrong, but where he directly confronted his superior. If he was right or wrong with doing so cannot be the subject of this review as the book is an autobiography and thus is written exclusively from the author’s perspective. Instead of simply describing these confrontations from his personal point of view, Bunes puts them in his autobiography into a comparison with Shackleton’s style of leadership after the Endurance became trapped. While it is obvious for the reader that Bunes disagreed with the style of leadership of his former commanding officer, it is enlightening to read, what elements of Shackleton’s style of leadership in extremely difficult situations he admired and this reviewer needs to agree with Bunes that despite of all hierarchy and military chain of command, openness and transparency with your crew is mandatory if you are in a situation where nature might endanger the survival of all men aboard the ship. Nevertheless, the reviewer does not necessarily agree with Bunes’ decision to confront his superior as it also needs to be taken into account that the CO was an experienced master of an icebreaker, while Bunes was a surgeon on his first deployment and might have simply misjudged the situation. Nevertheless as this book is an autobiographical account, in the end it does not matter if Bunes was right or wrong.
This reviewer needs to admit that he normally becomes somewhat skeptical whenever an author dealing with Antarctica draws the comparison with the experiences of Ernest Shackleton as this comparison has been overstretched by some authors in the past and sometimes even feels like mainly driven by marketing purposes. Nevertheless, when Bunes uses this comparison, it is a different situation, as he thought that there was a real chance that USCGC Glacier would not only have share the same fate but this would have happened also in the Weddell-Sea and thus the same waters where Endurance was hit by disaster. Thus, using the comparison seems to be most appropriate from his point of view and will also help understanding, that the Weddell -Sea is still one of the most dangerous parts of the oceans even for modern ships.
In a short but interesting and relevant epilogue, the author relates his personal experiences onboard USCGC Glacierto the situation a Russian research vessel used as an expedition cruise ship has experienced some years ago. This ship had become trapped by the ice for a number of days at least partially due to an ill-advised decision by the respective expedition leader and numerous assets had set sail to start to help the ship before it was finally freed from the ice by a whim of nature itself. Like the situations Bunes describes from his personal perspective when being onboard USCGC Glacier it once again had become obvious that every attempt to force something against nature in Antarctica is not only bound to fail and Antarctica’s nature being completely unpredictable, but that successful leadership in this region often simply means to be humble and that everything else might result in catastrophe or at least in the need for substantial efforts of external help that will be provided without question, but also might jeopardize other operations. If for example the USCGC Polar Star would have been required to complete its already begun mission to help with freeing the Russian research vessel, other critical missions like the opening of a channel to the US Antarctic research hub McMurdo might have been affected. Fortunately, nature itself solved the issue and this time the disagreement between the master of the ship and another senior member of the crew remained ultimately without major consequences.
A selection of black and white photographs and maps dispersed through the book helps the reader to get a better idea of everyday life on the ship as well as to understand the geography of a region most definitely unfamiliar to most readers. Unfortunately, the reproduction quality is by no means stellar, but often characterized by various shades of gray instead of black being real black. Of course, this minor criticism does not go to the author but to the publisher and it needs to be anticipated that this is simply a consequence of offering the book for a moderate retail price despite of being otherwise a high-quality hard cover book. The book is completed by a comprehensive and most helpful index and a short bibliography that lists the basic literature used by the author but by no means covers the literature available on the subject. To be fair, the author explains that he was not aiming to write a scholarly book, but an educational book and thus did neither provide individualized footnotes nor a bibliography according to scientific standards. While this might be disappointing for some readers, it also needs to be stated that this is an understandable position for an author of an autobiographical work that mainly provides personal recollections of past events and not a historical analytical take.
In conclusion, Bunes’ autobiographical book on his time as a crewmember of the USCGC Glacier can easily be recommended to any polar historian interested in Antarctic maritime history of the Cold War period but also to any maritime or naval historian with an interest in this period. Finally, it might also be recommended to anybody who is preparing for a trip to Antarctica regardless if for professional purposes or as a passenger on an expedition cruise ship due to it being a firsthand account of what might happen when sailing to these remote parts of the globe, and last but not least, because it is a well written book that makes an interesting read also for those travelling to Antarctica only as an arm-chair traveler. For anybody who was lucky enough to have been able to travel to the Weddell Sea him- or herself, like the author of this review who has had the opportunity to work on ships sailing the Weddell-Sea nearly every season for the past decade, it will be a most exciting read helping to understand that certain situations and issues experienced are not mainly a consequence of the specific group of people involved, but of these people being exposed to live and work as a small group of human beings exposed to one of the most hostile but at the same time most wonderful environments on the globe.
Precisely the day when completing this book review, it was announced that the wreck of the Endurance has finally been located and powerful underwater footage of the well-preserved shipwreck became available. Fortunately the USCGC Glacier did not share the fate of the Endurance but Bunes’ book is an important and powerful reminder, that this still can easily happen to any ship sailing the Weddell-Sea and that the risk for this happening is not only determined by nature and technology but also largely by style of leadership and experience of the commanding officers. As nature ultimately freed the USCGC Glacier itself, it will never be known if Bunes confrontation of his CO was justified or if his CO with his years of experience in icebreaker operations was right. Does it matter for the book – no, as it is not an analytical history of the Antarctic operations of USCGC Glacier, but an autobiography of his surgeon during his first deployment to Antarctica."
--Ingo Heidbrink, Ph.D. for the Naval Historical Foundation—